War, Inc.

A Very Private War
1 August 2007
Jeremy Scahill, Guardian


There are now 630 companies working in Iraq on contract for the US government, with personnel from more than 100 countries offering services ranging from cooking and driving to the protection of high-ranking army officers. Their 180,000 employees now outnumber America's 160,000 official troops. The precise number of mercenaries is unclear, but last year, a US government report identified 48,000 employees of private military/security firms.

Blackwater is far from being the biggest mercenary firm operating in Iraq, nor is it the most profitable. But it has the closest proximity to the throne in Washington and to radical rightwing causes, leading some critics to label it a "Republican guard". Blackwater offers the services of some of the most elite forces in the world and is tasked with some of the occupation's most "mission-critical" activities, namely keeping alive the most hated men in Baghdad - a fact it has deftly used as a marketing tool. Since the Iraq invasion began four years ago, Blackwater has emerged out of its compound near the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina as the trendsetter of the mercenary industry, leading the way toward a legitimisation of one of the world's dirtiest professions. And it owes its meteoric rise to the policies of the Bush administration.

Since the launch of the "war on terror", the administration has funnelled billions of dollars in public funds to US war corporations such as Blackwater USA, DynCorp and Triple Canopy. These companies have used the money to build up private armies that rival or outgun many of the world's national militaries.

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A decade ago, Blackwater barely existed; and yet its "diplomatic security" contracts since mid-2004, with the State Department alone, total more than $750m (£370m). It protects the US ambassador and other senior officials in Iraq as well as visiting Congressional delegations; it trains Afghan security forces, and was deployed in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, setting up a "command and control" centre just miles from the Iranian border. The company was also hired to protect emergency operations and facilities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where it raked in $240,000 (£120,000) a day from the American taxpayer, billing $950 (£470) a day per Blackwater contractor.

Yet this is still just a fraction of the company's business. It also runs an impressive domestic law-enforcement and military training system inside the US. While some of its competitors may have more forces deployed in more countries around the globe, none have organised their troops and facilities more like an actual military.

At present, Blackwater has forces deployed in nine countries and boasts a database of 21,000 additional troops at the ready, a fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gun-ships, and the world's largest private military facility - a 7,000-acre compound in North Carolina. It recently opened a new facility in Illinois (Blackwater North) and is fighting local opposition to a third planned domestic facility near San Diego (Blackwater West) by the Mexican border. It is also manufacturing an armoured vehicle (nicknamed the Grizzly) and surveillance blimps.

The man behind this empire is 38-year-old Erik Prince, a secretive, conservative Christian who once served with the US Navy's special forces and has made major campaign contributions to President Bush and his allies. Among Blackwater's senior executives are J Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA; Robert Richer, former deputy director of operations at the CIA; Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon inspector general; and an impressive array of other retired military and intelligence officials. Company executives recently announced the creation of a new private intelligence company, Total Intelligence, to be headed by Black and Richer. Blackwater executives boast that some of their work for the government is so sensitive that the company cannot tell one federal agency what it is doing for another.

In many ways, Blackwater's rapid ascent to prominence within the US war machine symbolises what could be called Bush's mercenary revolution. Much has been made of the administration's "failure" to build international consensus for the invasion of Iraq, but perhaps that was never the intention. Almost from the beginning, the White House substituted international diplomacy with lucrative war contracts. When US tanks rolled into Iraq in March 2003, they brought with them the largest army of "private contractors" ever deployed in a war.

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In early 2005, Blackwater held an extravagant, invitation-only Greystone "inauguration" at the swanky Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington, DC. The guest list for the seven-hour event included weapons manufacturers, oil companies and diplomats from the likes of Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Romania, Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Kenya, Angola and Jordan. Several of those countries' defence or military attaches attended. "It is more difficult than ever for your country to successfully protect its interests against diverse and complicated threats in today's grey world," Greystone's promotional pamphlet told attendees. "Greystone is an international security services company that offers your country or organisation a complete solution to your most pressing security needs."

Greystone said its forces were prepared for "ready deployment in support of national security objectives as well as private interests". Among the "services" offered were mobile security teams, which could be employed for personal security operations, surveillance and countersurveillance. Applicants for jobs with Greystone were asked to check off their qualifications in weapons: AK-47 rifle, Glock 19, M-16 series rifle, M-4 carbine rifle, machine gun, mortar and shoulder-fired weapons. Among the skills sought were: Sniper, Marksman, Door Gunner, Explosive Ordnance, Counter Assault Team.

While Blackwater has become one of the most powerful and influential private actors in international conflict since the launch of the war on terror, in many ways it is like a small, high-end boutique surrounded by megastores such as DynCorp, ArmourGroup and Erynis, operating in a $100bn industry. In fact, experts say, there are now more private military companies operating internationally than there are member nations at the UN.

"I think it's extraordinarily dangerous when a nation begins to outsource its monopoly on the use of force ... in support of its foreign policy or national security objectives," says Wilson. The billions of dollars being doled out to these companies, he says, "makes of them a very powerful interest group within the American body politic and an interest group that is, in fact, armed. And the question will arise at some time: to whom do they owe their loyalty?

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